As we leave this current lockdown behind there will be a degree of reckoning of the cost to the UK. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? There are some fabulous success stories and some catastrophes but one thing is for sure; whatever happens next will be based on our ability to learn from both things!
The disappointments include the fact that when we were given an opportunity to come together (globally, not just the UK), world leaders failed to create a coordinated response that tackled the spread of the virus in a meaningful way. This suggests that economic supremacy was a driving factor behind the responses and not the health and wellbeing of populations.
For a couple of generations, visionary authors like H G Wells, George Orwell, Ray Bradbury amongst others, have speculated that what humanity needed was an outside threat, a common enemy, to bring home the truth that we are one species, all in this together.
Instead of coming together, the world (with a few notable exceptions) immediately relapsed into the “every man for themselves” mindset. In the UK the examples were marked with populations split along political lines, with political leaders and the party faithful aggressively trying to mischaracterize the crisis purely for political gain. Newsfeeds were filled with what was wrong about the government’s response without a single cohesive alternative plan and the best that they could do was come up with alternative dates and deadlines. It was like watching them rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic!
No one was allowed to challenge the data, approaches or decisions that were taken, honest debate was actively shut down in case people began asking the wrong questions. For me, as an observer, their responses lacked maturity and any real example of true leadership. I think it demonstrates how broken our political system truly is.
As the pandemic took hold and the lock-downs began, thought leaders and futurists published their views on how the world would change forever as a result. In the main. reports trying to assess the scale of the problems caused by the crisis were focused on the economics to technology aspects.
• Cities and towns would fundamentally change their makeup and become more residential than commercial, as people who were able, fled to the countryside (the behaviour of the wealthy, during the great historical plagues across Europe).
• People would never return to offices and office culture, as they discovered the joys of remote working via Zoom and Microsoft teams.
• Restaurants and pubs would close and never return. The debate about whether a scotch egg was a substantial meal or not, sealing the fate of wet pubs everywhere.
• The introduction of AI that would accelerate, replacing human jobs in the pandemic that would never return.
• Business travel, in-person conferences and conventions would not return to previous levels.
• Corporate flexibility evolving with greater accommodation of remote working and an acknowledgement that people can be trusted to work when they are not micro-managed.
• Work-ready homes to include home offices/video studios and super fast internet as a necessity in all newbuilds.
• E-learning for everyone; the concept that people will learn remotely more than in-person will happen automatically in the future.
• The concept of business attire/uniforms carrying corporate branding will diminish and casual attire for business will quickly become the acceptable norm.
• Social Media virtuosos will rise as the new experts based on their video talent rather than their experience, skill or knowledge.
Early indications suggest elements of this may well become reality but there will also be some unexpected twists.
• The High Street and city centres may look different with some premises being converted to living accommodation (as long as rent and rates stay affordable) but there is a growing wave of new entrepreneurs taking empty store fronts for lifestyle businesses. They will be targeted at those itching to spend their disposable income via physical browsing for luxury items. (Internet shopping for basics is probably here to stay). It is much too early to declare that the advantages that cities provide socially, environmentally and economically have been irreversably changed by the pandemic.
• The idea that office culture is dead and people will forever prefer working from home over Zoom. There may be a percentage of people who prefer to work mostly by themselves, and from home. But they probably represent < 20% of the total working population. Not all work is transferable to the home environment and people are creatures of habit. Socialising at work is built into the psyche of extroverts and they will find ways to re-establish office culture quickly as they need it to function properly. Employers should not underestimate the robustness of office culture and the social aspects of work. I think remote working is more likely to affect micro businesses and SMEs more. They will have to make judgements about where they invest their money during the economic recovery after the pandemic. The choice may be quite clear; to develop their business, some will realise that technology will bring a better return than bricks and mortar. The old forecast of Craig McCaw (pioneer of the cellular phone business) that in the future people will travel to get together but not simply to perform basic work may come true.
• Over the last decade a whole coaching industry has sprung up focused on helping people to achieve a better life/work balance. This pandemic has given people a glimpse of what it feels like to spend more time with family at home. Some have experienced their priorities shift before their very eyes as they have had to work from home. One of the things to emerge from the pandemic will be the massive impact that lockdown and social isolation has had on people’s mental health. There will be many who welcome the opportunity to return to the commute and to their office/workplace as soon as they can.
I do think that there are two areas that have been impacted so deeply by the pandemic that the changes that occur here are likely to have a higher degree of permanency.
• Working women have been hit particularly hard, as they have taken on more of the increased responsibility for childcare and education, meal planning and preparation, and general home management. More women have left the workplace than men during the pandemic. This decline in work-force participation may take longer to recover as opportunities may be slower to appear in the job market. Female business owners are one of the worst hit groups as a result of the pandemic with less access to funding, greater expectations to juggle more and increased family responsibilities all having demands on their time* The SME Competitiveness Report International Trade Centre June 2020
• The pandemic has impacted single people and children (socially and psychologically) most significantly. When the pandemic began, we were told to expect in the 3-4 months of disruption. It was a good spring, nice weather, we were able to spend time in the garden and reconnect with those under the same roof, walking, BBQs etc. It was all very novel, almost like an adventure. When the isolation dragged into a full year and into longer, darker days, house confinement and separation from extended family and friends, it began to take a deeper toll on people. Consider the first time mums having had a baby during lockdown, who have only been able to interact with their health visitor, parents, friends and family members via a screen. Children at all levels of their development have been affected by their access to technology (including broadband at home), the quality of their school support and isolation from their friends. The real impact of this year may not be seen for 3 or 4 years from now.
The most positive notes from all of this are the extraordinary examples of humanity that have come from the nature of individuals and their acts of compassion, social responsibility and plain and simple kindness. The patterns of change for the future still have to emerge but there is a real note of concern that is these are the ways we responded to a global pandemic what is the likelihood of us coming together globally to act on climate change, the eradication of slavery and human trafficking or the search for renewable energy sources?
For me there are important lessons that we need to learn from as a result of the last 12 months:
We should be more concerned by an answer we are not allowed to question that a question we do not have an answer for
We need to have higher expectations of our leaders, advisors and policy makers and call our mediocrity and self interest when we see it. Leadership developments needs to be carving the pathway for how we grow future leaders with humanity and a genuine desire for collaboration
We need to envision a different education systems that places a higher value on innovation and creativity in problem solving and research and development rather than producing more of the same over and over.
We should be examining the messages we receive for behavioural evidence that people are walking the talk, it is the only thing that exposes rhetoric.
We have to learn from the past but not be dictated to by it's limitations. There is much to be optimistic about for our future and we should seize the opportunity to change what clearly is no longer working for us. We are a fifth of the way into this century and what we do with the lessons and possibilities of the remainder of it will decide whether the pandemic was a catalyst for good or a missed opportunity.
We still have much to learn.